Every year when the calendar turns to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, I feel compelled to write a word or two about him. There are multiple reasons why. First, I feel that King was the greatest, moral individual produced by this country in the 20th Century. Hated in his own day, it has taken decades for the country at large to recognize this.
Second, I have an African-American son, and an excerpt from King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” continually rings in my ears: “One day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” That line rings supremely true for my son and me. Indeed, we are native Georgians, he the son of former slaves, and I the son of former slave owners.
I have copies of my Confederate ancestors’ last wills and testaments, and they show them granting human beings as property, parceling out people like farm animals. My predecessors were dead wrong, and no amount of crowing “heritage not hate” can change this fact. Dr. King teaches me to nurture the hopeful future, not honor the wrongful past.
Third, Dr. King’s legacy extends beyond Civil Rights. In a provocative sermon from 1967, King expanded his vision to combat the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism” saying, “A nation that continues to spend more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Later that same year he called for a “revolution of values,” a “Poor People’s Campaign,” to extend fair treatment to, and justice for, the most economically depressed people of the country. King was assassinated before he could properly begin this campaign, and it is easy to see why.
When a true prophet takes on the root causes of a nation’s moral corruption – racism, materialism, militarism, and economic injustice – the hate toward that prophet becomes palpable. We can only build monuments for such people long after we have killed them.
But it was his audacious love that I most admire in MLK. It was a love that enabled him to speak truth to power while refusing the easier route of violence; courageous love that lead him to suffer for his convictions; provocative love that aligned him with the weak, the marginalized, and the mistreated, over and against the strong, the comfortable, and the privileged. It was his “unarmed truth and unconditional love that will have the final word.”
King himself called such love, “extreme.” Writing from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, he said, “In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime – the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love…The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.” Amen, Dr. King, and now, more than ever.